Summary: While talking a stroll about
He’s often dismissed as a second-rate scribbler of horror stories and adventure tales for children. He suffered greatly under the withering gaze of literary icon Virginia Woolf – who publicly disparaged his works during the height of her fame.
But there’s been a reconsideration of Stevenson as a master of the neo-romanticism movement that sprung up in
It’s difficult to read “Jekyll and Hyde” with a clean slate – the characters are so infused into modern society that a reader would have had to have grown up in a vacuum cleaner not to have formed some kind of impression of the characters (see: Legends of Literature Part 2).
But despite the movies, comic books, plays, parodies and TV melodramas (even the children’s show “Arthur” had an episode based on the story), the novella amazingly retains its freshness.
Stevenson is a beautiful writer – much to Woolf’s chagrin. He isn’t flowery, however, preferring a concise, direct style and relying on good old fashioned verbs and nouns to tell the story. The results, while too straight-forward for the esoteric Woolf, are vivid portraits and strong characterizations. Take this narrative from Mr. Enfield:
“Street after street, and all the folks asleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a church – till at last I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and begins to long for the sight of a policeman. All at once, I saw two figures: one little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sire the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner: and then cam the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left here screaming on the ground.”
This “little man,” of course, is Mr. Hyde. That may be the biggest surprise in the story: the crafty, evil doppelganger known as Mr. Hyde is a dwarf. A twisted and deformed dwarf, but nothing like the lurching giant that he is often portrayed as in film.
While disguised as a supernatural horror story, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is actually an indictment on Victorian morals. We told from the point of view of his close-friend, Mr. Utterson, that Dr. Jekyll is an intelligent, kind-hearted man who is well-respected as he moves into middle age. But in actuality, Dr. Jekyll is bored, frustrated, and exhausted by his propriety.
And that leads the good doctor to his basement laboratory to experiment with mind-altering chemicals, powders, and potions. There he discovers not only a way to unleash his primal urges, but in way that protects his reputation and identity. He has the perfect alibi because he has become another person – Mr. Hyde.
Stevenson, of course, was prevented from telling his readers in detail what Mr. Hyde did on his midnight excursions to the seedy parts of London – but one imagines lots of alcohol, opium, gambling, and sex with prostitutes. Dr. Jekyll is seduced by this lifestyle, until it overcomes him and his urges become so debased that he turns to brutality and murder.
Stevenson’s truly a delight, but often overlooked by serious readers. “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is certainly worth the investment of time – because at about 75 pages it reads more like a short story than a novella. You’ve seen the movies, experienced the legend, so why not get the story from the original source? Especially when it’s so much fun.